The Waterton Biosphere Reserve is recognized internationally as a special place where people work together to demonstrate innovative approaches to conservation and sustainable use. Designated by UNESCO in 1979, the WBR was Canada’s second biosphere reserve, and the first to include a national park at its core.
As part of UNESCO’s ‘Man and the Biosphere’ Program, the Waterton Biosphere Reserve strives to achieve a sustainable balance between three primary goals:
Located in the southwestern corner of Alberta, Waterton Biosphere Reserve encompasses some of the most spectacular and ecologically diverse landscapes in the Canadian Rocky Mountains and prairie grasslands.
Alberta’s Rocky Mountain, Parkland and Grassland Natural Regions can all be found within Waterton Biosphere Reserve. The steep environmental gradients from the Continental Divide (2910 m) to the prairies (960 m), climatic influences of two opposing air mass systems (the Pacific Maritime and the Arctic Continental), and variable aspect provided by mountainous terrain, have created a rich mosaic of habitats with their associated flora and fauna. Several rare or threatened plant and animal species are found in Waterton Biosphere Reserve with more than 1000 vascular plant species, 182 bryophytes and 218 lichen species, 60 species of mammals, over 260 species of birds, 24 species of fish, and 10 reptiles and amphibians being recorded within the ecologically diverse core area.
The region is also home to many vibrant communities – Pincher Creek, Cardston, Crowsnest Pass, Piikani and Kainai Reserves, and others – each with a rich and distinct cultural history, and reliance on a wide range of economic activities. In the WBR, people are actively involved with ranching, farming, tourism and recreation, wind energy, mining, the oil and gas industry, and other natural resource-related activities.
Traditionally, biosphere reserves are organized into three zones or areas – a legally protected core area; an adjacent buffer zone with activities that are compatible with conservation objectives; and a transition zone or ‘area of cooperation’ where sustainable land use is practised.
The protected core area of the WBR is Waterton Lakes National Park [ 50,500 ha]. Established in 1895 and managed by Parks Canada, Waterton is the Canadian part of the world’s first International Peace Park (Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, 1932). The peace park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.
Extending beyond the protected core area of Waterton Lakes National Park is a broad buffer zone of surrounding public and private land, and a transition zone or area of cooperation that supports many people in a wide range of economic activities.
The buffer zone, shown in blue and green on the zonation map, is 120,360 hectares in size and includes private lands and a large area of provincial crown land. The crown land includes Castle Wildland and Provincial Parks which together protect 103,836 hectares, plus several smaller provincial parks, natural areas, and an ecological reserve totaling another 1500 hectares. A small portion of the Rocky Mountain Forest Reserve lies in the northwestern corner of the buffer zone. Additional parcels of crown land in the buffer, including the Poll Haven Community Pasture (8000 hectares) are managed for multiple uses including cattle grazing. Private land within the buffer zone includes the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC) Waterton Park Front project (13,000 hectares) and additional properties belonging to, or with conservation easements held by, NCC or the Southern Alberta Land Trust Society (SALTS). These conserved areas are surrounded by additional parcels of private land that are of high conservation value with high biodiversity and significant tracts of intact native grasslands. The area is maintained as a working landscape where ranching is the dominant land use and is conducted to be compatible with conservation objectives.
The area of cooperation or transition area surrounds the buffer zone and is shown on the map in yellow. The transition area represents 596,590 hectares within Cardston County and the Municipal District of Pincher Creek that lie outside of the buffer zone. Here, the goal of sustainable resource use is explored and encouraged through research, education, and community-based planning.
UNESCO has no authority or regulatory powers within a biosphere reserve. The protected core area is subject to the legal restrictions of the organization responsible for its management. However, the buffer and transition zones, which often make up the majority of the reserve area of interest, are not regulated or restricted in any way by having biosphere reserve status. Government jurisdictions and private rights remain as they were before designation.
The Waterton Biosphere Reserve is also nested within a much larger landscape known as the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem, internationally acclaimed as one of the largest remaining intact ecosystems in North America. Geographically, the Crown of the Continent is centered on the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and stretches along the axis of the Rocky Mountains between the Canadian Central Rockies and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
The Crown of the Continent covers approximately 72,000 km2 and includes treasured places like Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in Montana, the Highwood Pass and Waterton Biosphere Reserve in Alberta, and the Flathead River Valley in southeastern British Columbia. This ecosystem provides a secure core of connected land and critical wildlife travel corridors extending north-south from Canada into the United States.
The Crown of the Continent Biosphere Reserve (formerly Glacier Biosphere Reserve) is centered on Glacier National Park in Montana, and shares a boundary with Waterton Biosphere Reserve.
The Crown of the Continent ecosystem is divided by national and provincial borders and is managed by a number of provincial, state and federal agencies and First Nations with an array of mandates to oversee preservation, tourism, forestry, mining, oil and gas extraction, energy developments and stock grazing. Commercial developers and local citizens further diversify land administration.
As one of North America’s largest ecologically intact areas, many people work together to raise public awareness and understanding of how environmental, social, and economic components of ecosystems interconnect and support each other.
This video about Waterton Biosphere Reserve was created by Peter Manners and Jaiden Panchyshyn from Pincher Creek, Alberta as part of the Explore 150 initiative with support from the Canadian Commission to UNESCO.